Big Brother in Times Square:

Surveillance Cameras in Public Places

No step taken in Times Square goes unwatched. A survey made in 1998 by the citizens' rights group [the New York] Civil Liberties Union counted 2,400 surveillance cameras in Manhattan; there were 75 such cameras in Times Square. In 2000, Bill Brown, founder of the Surveillance Camera Players, counted 129 cameras in Times Square. Taking this increase into account, there are today approximately 6,000 surveillance cameras in the entire City of New York.

The legality of video surveillance in the United States is unclear. Although audio surveillance in public places is deemed an illegal intrusion into privacy under existing laws, the installation of police cameras for the purposes of crime-prevention collides with the right to privacy guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. In Germany, by contrast, there are measures concerning data protection. An authorization is required if a surveillance camera is to be installed, even if the location is the balcony of the local Town Hall.

In the last few years, video surveillance and the digital collection of data are expanding into new areas. Wherever one goes, whether it is to the bank, a stadium or a public area, one is watched.

The native New Yorker wants these facts known, and they are the theme of the SCP's walking tour of surveillance cameras in Times Square. The SCP has put on these tours since the end of last year; each week brings a tour of a different neighborhood in New York. The tours, which have four guides at the moment, are intended to inform people that they are being watched without their consent.

SInce their founding in November 1996, the SCP have performed regularly in front of surveillance cameras in New York City. Messages such as "Mind your own business" [translator: Kummert euch um eure eigenen Angelegenheiten] are printed on large boards, which are held up to the cameras.

On the SCP's walking tours, the interested New Yorker can learn about the different camera systems that surveill public space. The technical abilities of these surveillance systems, the tour guide explains, are being constantly refined. So-called first-generation surveillance cameras are obsolete because they are fixed in place and can't move. The appeal of rotational, "second-generation" cameras is essentially different: they have night-vision, can see up to a mile away, and are part of a well-designed system that can respond quickly if a large group of people assemble. So-called third-generation cameras, which are used to surveil public space in London, are active cameras: they are equipped with face recognition software. People's faces and other data recorded by these cameras are sent directly to a databank, at which they are compared with existing information. At the "Super Bowl" (the final game of America's football league), images of people's faces were automatically compared with photographs of known criminals.

Contrary to expectations, the vast majority of the surveillance cameras installed in Times Square are not operated by the New York Police Department for the purposes of cracking down on crime, but are operated by private companies for the purposes of "security." So-called webcams, which send live video images over the Internet, are numerous in Times Square. They not only photograph Times Square, but individual people as well. The violation of privacy is obvious here. From their home computers, voyeurs can watch every step taken, without those affected being informed that they are being watched.

As the tour makes clear, the opposition to public surveillance is strong. Some on the tour had been personally surveilled by video cameras at their places of employment. The "nice, paranoid feeling you get when you become aware of the existence and number of surveillance cameras" -- to quote one of the participants in the walking tour -- has produced other traumatic effects. This was borne out by the presence on the walking tour of a crew from a local TV station. So serious is the desire for privacy that one woman on the tour said that, because she doesn't want to be videotaped, she would only leave her house if her face was covered and she was wearing sunglasses.

[Written by Karoline Bendig and published in the 1 March 2001 issue of Aufbau: the German-Jewish Times. Translated from the German by Bill Brown.]

Contact the Surveillance Camera Players

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By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998

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